It is true: beauty IS in the eye of the beholder. However, that doesn’t mean all pieces of art are created equal. For example, no one would claim that an original Renoir painting, and one done by the guy down the street are of equal value, just because they were both created using oil paints and the guy down the street was able to reproduce the same image. Are you aware that only 4% of all carpets sold on in the world are authentic, tribal or Persian rugs? It’s true! The rest are tribal design (made in a different region), Persian design (machine made, or made in a different region), or cheap Chinese knock-offs. That’s not an investment, you’re getting scammed by a “good deal”. There are criteria that allow one to go far beyond personal opinion in evaluating the two pieces. The same is true of rugs. There are basic criteria by which all rugs can be compared and contrasted, and conclusions drawn concerning their quality and value. This list is by no means comprehensive, but will help a rug “amateur” to evaluate the myriad of carpets available in the marketplace today.
There are three main classes of “oriental” rugs sold in the US: machine-made rugs, hand-tufted rugs, and hand-woven/hand-knotted rugs. In rugs, this classification is everything.
Machine-made rugs, even nicer brands such as Nain and Qum are simply that: machine made. They can be very pretty and quite functional, but they are not rightly comparable to a hand-made rug of any variety, and like most mass-produced home furnishings, are not generally considered to be works of art. The inferior quality means that they will only be beautiful for a few years, and then you’ll have to make that same (or more) investment for basic floor covering again in as little as five years. Conversely, a handmade item of the same or better quality can be an investment that grows more valuable and retains its quality for generations. You can tell a machine-made rug by examining the fringe. If it is sewn onto the rug, the piece is machine-made.
Hand-tufted rugs are very deceptively named. A tufted rug is in no way a hand-made rug. Rather, a mechanized “gun” is used (albeit by a person) to shoot pieces of wool through a canvas backing which has a pattern sketched onto it. No knot is tied in the wool; rather a petroleum-based rubber backing is painted over the back of the rug to keep the unsecured strands of yarn from falling out. Some of these carpets even have strong petroleum smells radiating from them when they are new, even to the point of being so overwhelming that you might choose to get rid of the carpet because the smell is so distasteful or causes health issues. Hand-tufted rugs are not only not art and do not have intrinsic value, but they can actually make you ill. A tufted rug is easy to spot because of the “backing” on the rug. No hand-made rug will have any sort of backing on the fibers, rubber or otherwise.
The designations “hand-woven”, “handmade” and “hand-knotted” are reserved for carpets that are made entirely by hand. In these types of carpets, a set of vertical strings, or “warp” is attached to a loom. Then wool is either woven through the warp strings, or hand-knotted onto the warp strings, to form the “weft” of the rug. At no point are machines used. One way to tell a handmade rug from its machine-made counterpart is to examine the fringes along the edge of the rug. In a handmade rug, the “fringe” is actually the warp strings, and is an integral part of the rug, rather than an applied ornamentation.
Not all handmade or hand-woven rugs are created equal! For more information, keep reading.
Skill of Weavers
The best rugs are designed and woven by adult weavers at the top of their artistic game, or by individuals who make these pieces of art for their own homes, have learned their craft through generations of skilled weaving in their own family (mother teaches child).
The first of these are professionals who are considered true artists in their own right, and are well paid for the work they do, and publicly-acknowledged for their skill. Interestingly, however, their names are rarely known outside their own circle of friends and other carpet makers. The latter group are not paid professionals but tribal individuals who create their works of art for their family’s use, and sadly have to sell their personal treasures (their carpets) to feed their families in hard times. In many circles, carpets are the product of the work of two groups: the designer(s), and the weavers, who bring that design to life. It is not uncommon to see 4-5 women working to execute the knots in a single rug. Thus, it would be deceptive to attribute the rug to any single party. That is why signatures are almost never seen on the best examples of the textile arts. It has only been in recent years that the concept of adding an “artist’s signature” to rugs was created. Signatures many times are a marketing ploy intended to appeal to western buyers.
Contrary to our instincts, signature lines on rugs are not an indicator of superior quality. In fact, the opposite can sometimes be true. One must look to actual quality of design and execution and not modern gimmicks like signatures to judge the skill of the weavers. The subject of design and motifs is broad enough to constitute a lifetime’s learning. But you don’t need to know everything about a rug’s design to be able to judge whether or not it is of value. The following criteria will help also help to detect the work of superior weavers.
Quality of Materials
In rugs, like in most things, one must start with high quality materials to end up with a high-quality product. In rugs, this means first-grade, unadulterated wools or silks, hand-spun if you can find it.
The better the wool or silk, the better the rug.
It is commonplace in today’s world to see poor quality wools blended with petroleum-based artificial materials to approximate the sheen of good quality wool. This is to be avoided at all cost, as bad wools will become brittle and fall apart, and petroleum-based materials (besides being ecologically-unfriendly) can sometimes take on an odd smell over time, especially if laid on a heated flooring surface.
In general, the best quality wools are also hand-spun. This is easily detected in flat-weave rugs due to a “knobby” texture to the weaving, but is harder to recognize in hand-knotted rugs. Machine-spun wools are also perfectly acceptable; they are just not as highly prized and therefore a rug made with machine-spun wools should be less expensive than one rendered in hand-spun materials.
The makeup of “silk” rugs is actually much easier to test. One simply needs to pull a tiny strand of silk from the rug, and burn it. If it shrivels and smells like burnt hair, it’s silk. Any other reaction means the rug is made of some other substance, most likely mercerized cotton. Silk rugs, unlike their wool counterparts, should be extremely shiny when looking down the nap. High shine means a better chance you are seeing actual silk, as opposed to some other blend of materials. NOTE: Some rug dealers will use the term “art silk” when referring to certain pieces: “art” is short for “artificial,” and is not an indicator of superior quality- in fact, quite the opposite.
There are three main classifications of wools used in rug production: Chemically-dyed, Vegetable-dyed, and Natural (or no-dye) wools. No question about it, natural or vegetable-dyed wools are preferred over wools dyed with chemical substances. Vegetable-dyed wools are simply more aesthetically pleasing (and therefore more valuable) than their chemical counterparts. However, plant-based dyes are much more difficult to work with, and require a skill level that takes many years to acquire, so vegetable-dye pieces are far more costly than their chemically-dyed counterparts.
Knot-count or KPI
The easiest but the most deceptive of the rug quality indicators is the concept of KPI, or “knots per square inch.” KPI is calculated by selecting a one-inch area of a rug, and counting the number of knots extending in each direction. Rugs are often classified according to knot-count as ranging from “coarse” to “super fine.” This is a helpful measurement in terms of evaluating the work that went into creating the pile on a rug. Please be aware, however, that this is but one of many criteria that are used to “grade” a rug, and therefore KPI must be used with due caution. It is easy to get so caught up in counting the quantity of knots on the back of the rug, that one forgets to examine the quality of the rug in general, and the knots in particular. An “art silk” rug might have 10 times the number of knots present in a simple nomadic piece of similar size, but the first has no value whatsoever, and the second could be worth many thousands of dollars.
Weaving quality indicators
Symmetry in size
Is the rug symmetrical? Or is one side markedly longer than the other? While slight variations in symmetry are to be expected, large variations in size indicates the work of a novice weaver.
Symmetry in image
Compare the back of the rug to the front. Does it look the same? Or are the colors or the patterns difficult to discern from the back? A good weaver’s “picture” will remain the same, and in the work of a truly gifted weaver, there will be so little difference one could even flip a knotted rug over for use.
Symmetry in knot construction
Does the back of the rug feel smooth to the touch? Or can you feel small bumps when you rub your hand over the back? Is the surface visually smooth? A good weaver’s knots will be smooth, with few bumps, bulges or puckers. Does the edge of the rug generally lie flat when placed on the ground, or do the edges roll under or up? Good quality weaving should lay flat, without rolling or curling along the edges. Of course, storage may make the carpet temporarily curl, but after a few days on the floor, the carpet should lay flat.
Design and Motif Considerations
Rug designs are as varied as the people who create them. And while it is true generally that more complex designs are harder to execute and therefore are more valuable overall, there are no “preferred” designs that are conclusively more valuable than others.
Rugs and textiles, like most other art forms, are subject to the likes and dislikes of their purchasers, which are in turn subject to the trends of the times, as well as economic conditions that have nothing at all to do with quality. For example, 20 years ago, even a mediocre-quality Persian piece made in Iran was considered to be very valuable. There was an embargo on the importation of Persian rugs into the US. This meant that there was a very limited supply of pieces to be had. In practical terms, that might mean that a rug that was (hypothetically) valued at $800 before the embargo might have been valued at $5000 a few years later. Unfortunately, when the embargo went away, so did the artificially-inflated value of the rug, leaving many owners feeling their rug had somehow become less valuable. The reality was, the piece didn’t increase in value because it was well-made, but only because it was scarce. The same is true as to the effect of decorating trends in rugs. One year, Kazak rugs are all the rage. The next year, Nains are popular, and no one wants their Kazak pieces anymore. In short, be aware that there can be many reasons other than intrinsic quality inflating the value of a rug. If long-term investment is important to you, it is better to buy based on quality and your personal preferences than on market or design trends.
One of the best things about buying one-of-a-kind, handmade rugs or killims is that age is likely to help them retain and even increase their value over time, something that is untrue of almost any other form of home furnishing. That means even a simple and quirky village rug will probably retain its value, and can likely be re-sold for its purchase price and sometimes considerably more, once a few decades have passed. Try that with your couch!
Age it will not, however, make up for deficits in any of the attributes of a well-made rug discussed above. In other words, a poor quality rug that is 150 years old is still a poor quality rug. If you want a rug that will hold its value, you must seek out a good quality piece at the start of your investment.